Friday, August 28, 2015

The Skyscraper Race: Is America Done?

It's easy to look at the feats rising from Asia and the Middle East and wonder if North America will ever again host a "World's Tallest." The last time we held that title was in 1998, when Kuala Lumpur's twin Petronas Towers beat out Chicago's Sears Tower by a few meters. American developers, fueled by a renewed challenge - one that hadn't really been visited since the 1970s, and one that primarily existed in North America - began quickly working with architects to volley the ball back to Asia with something even taller. 

But a series of unfortunate events put a wrench in our efforts to further scrape the sky. Even before the crash, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the global housing crisis, 9/11 had devastated our nation and forced us to question the vulnerability that comes with reaching so high. 

New York's World Trade Center became North America's Tower of Babel.

By the time we started building again, the Burj Khalifa was slated to surpass the height of New York's Freedom Tower by nearly twice its proposed height. Buildings like Taiwan's Taipei 101 and those that seemed poised to at least briefly hold the title of "World's Tallest" were quickly relegated to a vast architectural catalog of skyscrapers roughly the height of the Sears Tower. 

Today, development in the United States has seemingly dropped out of the global height race, opting for unofficial local rivalries. When we do compete, it's New York versus Chicago, or Philadelphia and Los Angeles battling over who will become slightly taller than the rest. Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center will become an architectural symbol of Philadelphia's renaissance, but when it's mentioned in the press, it comes with the caveat, "tallest outside New York and Chicago."

Perhaps the tragedies and obstacles that kept us out of the race in the early 2000s didn't just make us question the vulnerability of building so tall, but also the practicality. In most major American cities, skyscrapers top out around 300 meters, roughly the height of Comcast Center and its upcoming partner. 

Using technology that hasn't fundamentally changed in more than one hundred and fifty years, most of the world's tallest skyscrapers still use the same Otis elevators invented in 1852. Until someone created a truly new technology to take us more than one hundred stories into the sky, elevator banks become clogged and traveling between floors begins eating into valuable business hours. 

With business becoming more mobile, it's often less remote. Tech geeks meander through suburban campuses on Segways and scooters in the Silicon Valley, tethered to tablets and smart phones. New project management methodologies born in the world of information technology are spreading from the West Coast throughout the rest of the world, and they require days filled with brainstorming sessions, sprint meetings, and most importantly, mobility.

Emails and texts are being hastily addressed while waiting in long lines for elevators. It's no surprise that the world's most successful technology companies still favor the sprawling suburban campus. 

In that regard it's easy to understand why American corporations have opted out of the international race for height. It's also easy to wonder if Asian countries, and more specifically, sprawling Middle Eastern cities really get skyscrapers. 

Born from a need during the Industrial Revolution, the perfection of Otis's elevator provided an answer. Cities like New York and Chicago finally had a way to cram as many people as possible into a finite amount of space by building really, really high. For those who invented the skyscraper, it wasn't a luxury, it was a solution. And with a renewed sense of urban living and employment, density is being brought back to cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami by building up, not out.

But to developers in the Middle East, to those building the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, skyscrapers straight out of the pages of the best science fiction novels are becoming a reality for something entirely different. While the floor count seems to have no ceiling in today's global skyscrapers, there is nothing technologically unique about the Kingdom Tower or the Burj Khalifa, except for purpose. Throwing practicality into the desert, Middle Eastern developers are scraping the sky to cater to an exclusive clientele, a global 1% with nothing but time on their hands, plenty to wait for an elevator.

For the United States, Canada, European nations, and other more pragmatic countries, we didn't quit the race, we're just waiting for technology to make something as tall as the Kingdom Tower make sense. When that happens, the game is back on. 

New York's World Trader Center wasn't the Tower of Babel. It made sense. It served its purpose, it was tragically destroyed, and it was rebuilt. In fact, the story of the Tower of Babel makes no mention of its destruction despite so many modern references. It was simply a towering city so large that chaos ensued and the tower was abandoned. I'm certainly not a Christian, but the analogy is historically apt, and much more attributable to cities a little bit closer to its namesake. To buildings like the Burj Khalifa, the Kingdom Tower, to building's that just don't make sense...yet.

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